Category Archives: Strategic Outlook

China’s Military Strategy: Assessment of White Paper 2015

This article can be found in its original form at the National Maritime Foundation here and was republished with permission. 

China has been issuing Defence White Papers biennially since 1998. The ninth White Paper of 2014 titled ‘China’s Military Strategy’ was released recently in May 2015. This essay seeks to analyse the salient aspects of the document, particularly in context of the preceding document of 2012 released in April 2013.

In comparison to the Defence White Papers published by China in the preceding years, the 2014 document is very concise. Nonetheless, it reveals substantial content and context, disproportionate to the size of its text. While much of the revelation is likely to be Beijing’s ‘strategic communications’, the document is nonetheless insightful.  

Title of White Paper

The present White Paper has continued the trend of using a thematic title – a trend that was initiated with the 2012 document titled ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’. The trend and the specific title spelling out “China’s Military Strategy” signify the increased self-confidence of an emerging global military power, which until a few years ago, preferred to be opaque to the world on ‘matters military’.  The document also reflects an increased self-assurance as a nation, stating that “China’s comprehensive national strength, core competitiveness and risk-resistance capacity are notably increasing, and China enjoys growing international standing and influence”.

Core National Objectives

In the document, China has maintained its earlier stance of avoiding war through its military strategy of “active defence” (that envisages an ‘offensive’ only at the operational and tactical levels). However, the document mentions “preparation for military struggle (PMS)”, which indicates its strong desire to retain the option of first use of military force, if it cannot achieve its core objectives otherwise. Furthermore, the emphasis on “maritime PMS” indicates that these objectives pertain to Taiwan’s “reunification”, and fructification of its maritime-territorial claims in the Western Pacific. Furthermore, the inclusion of the phase “You fight your way and I fight my way” indicates that China’s war-fighting concept to meet its core objectives is likely to be based on use of asymmetric capabilities.

Maritime Interests

The previous 2012 document stated the PLA Navy’s mandate to preserve China’s sovereignty over its territorial seas and its maritime rights and interests in ‘offshore areas’ against complex security threats, thereby portraying China as a victim or an underdog reacting to the actions of Japan, and implicitly, of the U.S. The new document, however, emphasises a more proactive protection of its interests in ‘open waters’, thereby enlarging its strategic depth. Notably, the document also calls upon the need to shed the mindset that peace, stability, and development of China is linked to affairs on land rather than the sea. This indicates a maritime emphasis of China’s military strategy.

With regard to the security of sea-lanes, it uses the term “strategic Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs)”. Although the term ‘SLOC’ itself bears a ‘strategic’ connotation, the addition of the adjective indicates that China considers itself vulnerable to commodity denial during war, thereby severely limiting its option of use of military force. Although the document does not specifically mention the ‘Indian Ocean’, the reference to Indian Ocean SLOCs may be inferred.

 Naval Presence in Indian Ocean

Alike the previous 2012 document, the 2014 White Paper states that the PLA Navy would maintain “regular combat readiness patrols…(and maintain)…military presence in relevant sea areas.” While the former may refer to the Western Pacific, the latter is a likely reference to the Indian Ocean. This is buttressed by the statement that the PLA Navy would “continue to carry out escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and other sea areas as required, enhance exchanges and cooperation with naval task forces of other countries, and jointly secure international SLOCs.” This implies that China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean would continue, and may even increase. While such presence may be primarily for undertaking ‘Military Operations Other than War’ (MOOTW), it is likely to be dovetailed with preparing for ‘wartime’ operations. This assertion is borne out by Beijing’s assertion in September 2014 that its Song-class submarine deployed in the Indian Ocean was meant for counter-piracy. (The credibility of this rationale was dismissed by naval analysts on operational grounds). The document adds that the “PLA Navy will work to incorporate MOOTW capacity building into…PMS” thereby implying the China would also seek to develop fungible capabilities.

Furthermore, the White Paper lays emphasis on ‘sustenance’ of the forward-deployed naval platforms through “strategic prepositioning”. This indicates that China is likely to seek overseas access facilities (if not military bases) in the Indian Ocean, or even resort to the U.S. concept of ‘sea-basing’. The latter possibility is supported by recent news-reports about China developing large ‘Mobile Landing Platforms’ (MLP) similar to those used by the U.S. expeditionary forces.

Military Interface with Major Powers

The mention of Russia in the White Paper precedes all other countries. The “exchanges and cooperation with the Russian military within the framework of the comprehensive strategic partnership…to promote military relations in more fields and at more levels” indicates the imminence of a China-Russia quasi-alliance. 

The 2012 White Paper, without naming the U.S., had expressed a concern for its “pivot” to Asia strategy and “strengthening of its military alliances with the regional countries, leading to tensions.” In contrast, the 2014 document mentions the U.S. explicitly. While it does state the need for “cooperative mechanisms with the US Navy, including exchange of information in the maritime domain”, its tone and tenor indicates a precursor to a ‘Cold War-style’ military interface between the two major powers. It talks about a “new model of military relationship” with the US based on “major-country relations”, with “strengthening of defence dialogue (and)…CBMs to include notification of major military activities (and) rules of behaviour” to prevent “air and maritime encounters…strengthen mutual trust, prevent risks and manage crises.” However, it is yet unclear what kind of bipolar interface will eventually emerge since the current global environment marked by close China-U.S. economic ties is vastly dissimilar to the erstwhile Cold War era.

 The 2012 White Paper had mentioned India’s combined Army exercises with PLA and increased anti-piracy coordination with India. Since the 2014 document is more succinct, the lack of details is understandable. However, the lack of even a mention of defence exchanges with India, or any other Asian country is remarkable.

Also ‘conspicuous by absence’ are the various facets of ‘transparency’ that the preceding Defence White Papers had addressed, ranging from China’s defence budget to its nuclear weapons policy of no-first use (NFU). Evidently, China has ‘arrived’ on the world stage with a single-minded preoccupation of how it could challenge the unipolar world order dominated by the U.S.

Captain (Dr.) Gurpreet S Khurana is the Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at


For a Good Time Hack OPM

Guest article by Brian Scopa, USN.

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it’s enemy action.”

-Ian Fleming


M looking for W? W looking for M? PRC looking for Intel?

The revelation that the Office of Personnel Management has been hacked, allegedly by the Chinese, has profound implications for the safeguarding of classified US information. Beyond the typical identity theft problems associated with any breach of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) from a government or private database, the fact that the data on 4.1 million military and  government personnel contained  information on their security clearances is extremely grave. This is not only an egregious breach of individual privacy, but when combined with two other hacks of private websites make for a counterintelligence nightmare.

Allowing ourselves to go briefly down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, two additional hacks of private websites are worth considering in conjunction with the OPM hack:

Linkedin in 2012. 

“LinkedIn Security professionals suspected that the business-focused social network LinkedIn suffered a major breach of its password database. Recently, a file containing 6.5 million unique hashed passwords appeared in an online forum based in Russia. More than 200,000 of these passwords have reportedly been cracked so far.”

The consensual aggregation of personal and employment information online has greatly simplified the task of finding targets for intelligence gathering. The technology that makes finding a project manager with an MBA and five years of experience fast and convenient also makes it easy to track down missile and radar engineers on LinkedIn. The publicly available information on LinkedIn is a trove of intelligence in itself regarding military, government, and contract employees that work in defense related industries. Having the private email addresses and passwords of LinkedIn members has staggering spearfishing implications ala STUXNET.

Adult Friend Finder (AFF) in May 2015 

Andrew Auernheimer, a controversial computer hacker who looked through the files, used Twitter to publicly identify Adult FriendFinder customers, including a Washington police academy commander, an FAA employee, a California state tax worker and a naval intelligence officer who supposedly tried to cheat on his wife.” (emphasis mine)

Catching Flies

Developing intelligence sources costs time, money, and effort, regardless of the method employed, and intelligence agencies are constantly searching for ways to more efficiently target and recruit intelligence sources. The OPM and LinkedIn hack simplify the targeting, but it’s the AFF hack that helps with recruitment.

One of the most useful tools intelligence agencies have for recruiting sources is blackmail, and a ‘Honey Trap’ is the practice of luring a potential intelligence source into a compromising position with a romantic partner that’s working for an intelligence agency, and either gaining their cooperation in the name of love, or blackmailing the source into compliance.

The Chinese are apparently particularly fond of this specific type of intelligence gathering operation:

“MI5 is worried about sex. In a 14-page document distributed last year to hundreds of British banks, businesses, and financial institutions, titled “The Threat from Chinese Espionage,” the famed British security service described a wide-ranging Chinese effort to blackmail Western businesspeople over sexual relationships.”

The AFF hack is probably the first Massive Multiplayer Online Honey Trap (MMOHT).  Even better for foreign intelligence agencies (FIAs), it was self-baiting and required zero investment of resources.

How bad is it?

Perverting the Drake Equation for this exercise, we can conduct a thought experiment about the number of potential intelligence sources created by the confluence of the three hacks mentioned above, expressed mathematically as P = O * W * N * Y, where:

P = Total number of useful possible US government employee intelligence sources that could be exploited.

O  = All government employees with security clearances whose personally identifiable information has been compromised, reported to be 4.1 million.

W = Fraction of O that are AFF members. This number has not been made public by the DoD, if it’s known, but the reported number of member profiles compromised was 3.5 million.

N = Fraction of W that desperately want their activities on AFF to remain undisclosed and could be effectively blackmailed. Not everyone will be embarrassed by their activities on AFF.

Y = Fraction of O that has been or is currently employed in a position that a FIA would find useful to turn into a source of intelligence.

Since I don’t have any insight into the any of the variables with the exception of O, I won’t speculate on what P might be, but I have no doubt that it’s an actionable, non-zero number that FIAs must be rushing to exploit.



Lessons Re-identified, Still Unlearned

Any information that’s online can be accessed online- full stop. We should all assume that any device connected to the public internet is hackable, and act accordingly. While there are many good precautions and security features that individuals, companies, institutions, and governments can take to better protect online dealings and information, such as two-factor authentication, tokens, and salted password hashing, it has been demonstrated time and again that the advantage in the cyber security arms race is with the attacker. You cannot count on technical means alone to protect your information.  If individuals with security clearances have used the internet to facilitate behavior that the knowledge of by a third party could lead to blackmail, the individuals should assume the information will be made public.

Security through obscurity is always a loser, but anonymity is still worthwhile. The critical information that makes blackmail possible in this instance is being able to identify government employees that were also members of AFF. If AFF members had taken care to remain anonymous by making their member profiles non-attributional, using email addresses and phone numbers not otherwise linked to them, using non-identifiable pictures, and keeping locations ambiguous, they may yet have some measure of protection from identification.

What’s next?

This is only the beginning of this particular saga. In the coming months I have no doubt we’ll hear about the hacks of other popular dating, hook-up, and porn sites. The hacking itself has probably already happened; it’ll just take time for the discoveries to be made.

The news is grim, but there is opportunity here. While FIA see openings, our own counterintelligence organizations have an unprecedented opportunity to identify potential targets before they can be contacted by FIAs and possibly prepare them to act as double-agents, turning the honey traps on the attackers. If nothing else, the act of sharing the blackmail information with the security services helps to inoculate the individuals against blackmail, since it’s typically (but not always) the fear of disclosure that makes the information useful, not the specific behavior that’s problematic.

In any case, it’s time for a DoD-wide effort to review the list of AFF members and check it against current and past employees with security clearances. Then, command security officers can start having the difficult, closed-door conversations necessary to learn the scope of the possible vulnerability. Doing so will limit the damage from this hack, and it’ll be a useful exercise in preparing for the next episode.

Which has already happened.

Geographic Re-balance the Solution to Right-Sizing the Navy

The new 2015 Maritime Strategy demands a significant part of the Navy be forward based or operated in order to achieve national goals. The current number of ships and their present deployment pattern may not support the new strategy’s goals. Several recent articles have bemoaned the Navy’s shrinking surface ship fleet, or sought to make light of the overall number of ships as a significant determinant of strategic naval power. Both are, in a way, incorrect. The number of ships does matter, but wishing for a return of the halcyon 1980’s and the 600 ship navy is a futile hope in the face of the present budget deficit and growing welfare state. The post World War 2 U.S. Navy deployment structure has been based on the maintenance of a specific number of total ships in order to maintain a consistent overseas naval peacetime presence and credible war fighting force if required. The solution to this combination of forward deployment requirements on a limited budget is a fundamental change to the post-1948 U.S. naval deployment scheme through a global redistribution of U.S. naval assets. Potential threats, strategic geography, and support from potential coalition partners should govern this effort. The Navy should also seek new technologies to reduce overall budget costs. If this sounds familiar, it is not a new concept. Great Britain’s Royal Navy, under the leadership of the fiery transformationalist Admiral Sir John Fisher, executed a similar successful change just over a century ago in a similarly bleak financial environment. A modified version of Fisher’s scheme represents the U.S. Navy’s best hope to assign relevant naval combat power where it is most needed and at the best cost.

Britain’s Successful Rebalance
Like the U.S. today, Great Britain at the turn of the last century was a nation in rapid relative decline. British industry and its share of the world economy were shrinking in response to the rise of Germany, Japan, and the United States. The navies of those nations, as well as traditional enemies like France and Russia were growing in size and capability. Great Britain had just concluded the financially taxing and internationally embarrassing Boer War, which strained the nation’s tax base and earned it international opprobrium for harsh treatment of Boer combatants and civilians. The concept of a British Welfare state had gained significant support, and expenditures for this new government responsibility threatened the budgets of the Army and the Navy; both of which required significant modernization.
Admiral Fisher was selected by the Conservative Party’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne, specifically for his daring pledge to cut naval spending, while increasing the power and overall capability of the Royal Navy (RN). Fisher scrapped large numbers of older warships; created a ready reserve of minimum manned, older, but still capable combatants; reformed the RN’s personnel structure; and argued for the adoption of revolutionary technologies such as turbine engines, oil fuel for ships, director-based gun firing, submarines, and naval aircraft. A succession of Navy civilian leaders from both of the large British political parties supported his efforts. Most importantly, Fisher presided over the biggest re-balancing of British naval assets since the end of the Napoleonic wars. Before Fisher the RN was divided amongst various colonial stations around the world. Its most significant operational commands were the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Fleets that protected Britain’s line of communication to India via the Suez Canal.  Although Fisher’s initial strategy was to counter France and Russia,  the concentration of British naval strength in home waters allowed it to counter rising German threats.  Britain sought simultaneous colonial agreements with France and Russia to reduce tension, and signed an official alliance with the emerging Japanese Empire to secure communications with its Pacific possessions. It also unofficially acquiesced to U.S. naval domination in the Western Hemisphere to eliminate any tensions with the other great English-speaking nation. All told, these efforts allowed Fisher to keep British naval spending at 1905 levels until 1911.1 They also ensured that a significant British naval force was in place for war with Germany in 1914.

Conditions for U.S. Rebalance
The U.S. would be well served to create a global re-balance program along the lines of Admiral Fisher’s for its own Navy. In reverse of Fisher, however, the bulk of America’s naval strength must move from bases in home waters to the periphery of the nation’s interests. Some reductions in overall naval strength will be required to ensure that forward forces are well trained and equipped for both peacetime presence and wartime combat functions. Assignment will depend on regional geography, threat level and the availability of coalition partners to augment, or in some case replace U.S. naval assets.
The large deck nuclear aircraft carrier and its associated air wing are best employed in locations where land-based aviation assets are vulnerable or scarce due to geographic location. For this reason, the bulk of the carrier force should be assigned to distributed bases in the Indo-Pacific region. A force of six large carriers would serve as the core of the Pacific naval component. The surface combatant and attack submarine force based in the Pacific would be a commensurate percentage of its overall strength. They should be sufficient in number to support carrier escort, independent operations, and surface action groups as recommended for the emerging strategy of distributive lethality. This force would be large enough to conduct meaningful fleet and large scale joint exercises in a number of warfighting disciplines.

The carrier’s assignment to the largest ocean area of responsibility (AOR) best supports a joint commander’s warfighting requirements in a predominately maritime environment. The caveat with the assignment of carriers geographically is that the post-1948 deployment pattern of ‘three aircraft carriers equal one forward deployed, active carrier’ must be scrapped. This means retiring two carriers, perhaps the two oldest Nimitz class when the USS Gerald R. Ford is commissioned in next year.  One carrier strike group costs $6.5 million dollars a day to operate.2 The funds saved in the retirement of two carriers could be directed toward the maintenance of and operational costs of the remaining eight, with the proviso that these be consistently ready for service as required.
The Eurasian littoral areas historically supported by east coast naval forces would receive smaller, tailored force packages in this new organization scheme. Given that Eurasian littoral operations can be supported by land-based air units, only two carriers need be assigned to the Atlantic coast with perhaps a third designated as a training carrier.

A Substitute for a Carrier Strike Group
Under this arrangement the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf areas would not see regularly deployed large deck carriers. To offset their absence, it is proposed that two light carrier groups be forward-based on the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean respectively. Such a group would each be centered on an LHA-6 class amphibious warship configured as a light carrier with an airwing of 20+ F-35 Lightning II strike aircraft. The CVL-configured LHA, too small to support the full traditional carrier wing of both attack and support aircraft, would be supported by land-based assets that would provide airborne early warning (AEW), tanking, and other strike missions. Each group would contain three DDG-51 class destroyers for offensive and defensive roles including missile defense, a DDG-1000 class destroyer for surface strike and other warfare roles, and a flotilla of four to six littoral combat ships (LCS) or similar frigates (FF’s) for a variety of low intensity combat and surface strike missions. Attack submarines may be included as needed and an amphibious warfare group similar to the present 7th fleet formation based in Sasebo, Japan round out the numerical assignments. A full amphibious ready group (ARG) with associated Marine Expeditionary Force (MEU) based at Rota could exploit NATO/EU capabilities in the region as well. Most of these rebalancing efforts can be completed between 2020 and 2025, with the fight light carrier group ready by 2017. It may begin operations with the AV-8B II Harrier, but later transition to the F-35B Lightning II. After 2020, an international carrier strike group (CSG) presence might be maintained in the Eastern Mediterranean with British, French, Italian, and Spanish carriers playing a role.3
The Mediterranean offers a number of ports that together are capable of hosting such a force including Rota, Spain, Sigonella, Sicily, and Souda Bay, Crete. The Western Pacific/Indian Ocean represents a more complicated basing picture, but a combination of facilities in Singapore, Darwin, and Perth, with a forward anchorage in Diego Garcia might offer sufficient space to support to forward deployed forces. Both regions offer a number of land-based aviation facilities to support a light carrier formation.
The navies of friends and formal allies offer additional support to this strategy. The U.S. has consistently sought and depended on coalition allies in the conflicts it has engaged in since 1945, and especially since 1990. European fleets have changed from antisubmarine Cold War forces to smaller, but more deployable, larger combatants capable of global operations. Resident European force in the Mediterranean and deployed forces in the Persian Gulf region might augment U.S. efforts in those regions. The Libyan Operation of 2011 (Operation Odyssey Dawn for the U.S.), showcased what a U.S. light carrier group, as centered then on USS Kearsarge, and European forces might accomplish. The British Defence Secretary’s recent announcement that the Royal Navy will develop a base in Bahrain suggests that at least British and perhaps other Commonwealth nations’ navies might support U.S. efforts in the Persian Gulf region.

Options for Cooperation and Technological Offset
Strong U.S. relationships with Western Pacific nations are essential to any re-balancing strategy in that region. The adoption of AEGIS systems by the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, the South Korean, and Australian navies significantly aids in cooperative efforts. Close U.S. ties with Singapore, the Philippines, and other regional naval forces are also essential to U.S. efforts. One method of achieving this might be a Western Pacific version of the Standing NATO Maritime Groups. An international squadron with rotating command responsibilities would be useful in easing old tensions and promoting better relations amongst this diverse group of nations.
The “long pole in the tent” of such a re-balancing strategy is how to manage the personnel disruptions such a change would cause. The CONUS-based U.S. deployment strategy, and dependent housing agreements in Japan and some Mediterranean nations has allowed for a great deal of family stability. Sailors can remain reasonably close to their families, even when forward deployed. There is no guarantee that Pacific or Mediterranean nations would accept large increases in the population of U.S. naval personnel and their dependents resident within their borders. In addition to the foreign relation concerns, such additions would cost a considerable amount of money and involve greater security risks in protecting a larger overseas American service and dependent population. The answer to this problem is to ‘dust off’ some of the reduced and creative manning projects of the last decade. While not ideal in many ways, reduced manning, crew swaps, and longer, unaccompanied deployments may become the norm, rather than the exception for American sailors.
Unfortunately, this is the price of putting more credible combat power in forward areas at present or even reduced costs. The U.S. will be hard-pressed to duplicate Admiral Fisher’s other revolutionary changes. The U.S. Navy has retired nearly all of its outdated warships, and further reductions of newer platforms will harm overall naval capabilities. Revolutionary changes in armament such as the rail gun and other directed energy weapons, and continued advances in the electric drive concept may allow for some cost reductions in naval expenditures, but they remain far from mature development. The rail gun is slated for additional afloat testing, but with a barrel life of only 400 rounds, it represents a 21st century equivalent of the arquebus.4 Fisher, by contrast, had relatively mature technological solutions in propulsion, and rushed fire control, aircraft, and submarine advances into full production with mixed results. The present U.S. test and evaluation culture would not permit such bold experimentation.
The U.S. can, however, improve its overall forward naval posture by re-balancing its force structure along geographic lines to better support national interests and regional commanders’ requirements.  Additional force structure will be difficult to achieve in the face of present budget woes. Transformational technology is moving toward initial capabilities, but is not yet ready for immediate, cost savings application. The post-1948 CONUS-based deployment system is becoming more difficult to maintain with fewer ships and persistent commitments. Despite these dilemmas, the U.S. must fundamentally change the deployment and basing structure of the fleet in order to provide credible combat power forward in support of joint commander requirements. The new 2015 Maritime Strategy will not achieve many of its goals using the present CONUS-based deployment construct. Geographic re-balance of the fleet will provide strength were it is most needed.

1.  A detailed explanation of the Fisher/Selborne re-balance strategy may be found in Aaron Friedberg’s The Weary Titan, Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, pages 135-208.

2.  Captain Jerry Hendrix, USN (ret), PhD, “At What Cost a Carrier”, Center for New American Security (CNAS), March 2013, p. 7.

3.  Conversation with retired NSWCCD Senior Warfare Analyst James O’Brasky.

4. 15 February statement of Statement of Rear Admiral Mattew L. Klunder, USN, Chief Of Naval Research before the Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee  of the House Armed Services Committee on the Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request,  26 March, 2014.


China’s South China Sea Strategy: Simply Brilliant

This article can be found in its original form at ASPI here, and was republished with permission.

In the past 12 months, China has provoked considerable attention with its reclamation activities in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratlys where it controls seven maritime features.

China’s history of salami-slicing presents a dilemma to regional countries as well as external powers with regional interests: do they escalate an incident each time China slices the salami and risk open conflict, or stand down and allow China to augment its territorial claims.

The million-dollar question remains: who or what will freeze China’s reclamation in the South China Sea? The answer: nothing, really.

It has been proposed, for example, that like-minded states carve out a ‘code of practice’ that would stress the rule of law and mirror the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Another option being considered by the Pentagon is to send US aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-built reefs in the Spratlys, to challenge its influence there.

While useful, such proposals won’t freeze or rollback China’s attempts to change the facts on the ground (or the high sea). China’s reclamation seeks to pre-empt any decision that would come from the Philippines’ challenge in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over China’s nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea.

It’s noteworthy that China hasn’t only engaged in salami slicing; it has sought to use the attraction of its economy, trade and aid to offset its high-risk behaviour.

Following the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident with the Philippines, China launched a charm offensive in 2013, wooing ASEAN with a treaty of friendship and cooperation, stressing that it intended to take China–ASEAN relations from a ‘golden decade’ to a ‘diamond decade’.

This year, when concerns about China’s reclamation have intensified, China has offered a carrot: US and other countries would be welcome to use civilian facilities it’s building in the South China Sea for search and rescue and weather forecasting, when ‘conditions are right’.

China has also used its economic weight to deftly tilt the balance (of influence, at least) in its favor. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is attracting long-standing American allies such as Great Britain, Australia and South Korea. China has stolen a march on the US in the battle to win friends and influence people.

And the economic offensive doesn’t end with the AIIB. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a free trade agreement that would involve ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—is seen as a rival to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is also another lure for peripheral countries keen on leveraging on China’s economic ascent.

Concerted and effective opposition to China’s fait accompli in the South China Sea requires an astute mix of diplomacy and deterrence. It might take the form of a regional effort to get China to clarify its nine-dashed line claims based on UNCLOS principles, an ASEAN ultimatum for China to at least freeze its reclamation activities, and joint ASEAN–US patrols near the reefs being reclaimed by China. This looks unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

ASEAN was damaged in 2012, when it failed—for the first time in its 45-year history—to issue a communiqué due to differing views over the South China Sea. ASEAN has recently upped its game by underscoring the dangers of China’s reclamation, but there’s little the group can do apart from pushing for a formal Code of Conduct. A successful conclusion of the code isn’t assured; China dangles the carrot of code negotiations to buy time even as its carries out reclamation.

For all its rhetoric about the need to uphold international law and the freedom of navigation, the US is conflicted when it comes to China. It all boils down to this: will the US risk its extensive relationship with China over a few rocks in the South China Sea? As Hillary Clinton once said: how does the US ‘deal toughly’ toward its banker?

To get a sense of the effect of China’s creeping invasion of the South China Sea, one only need look at Vietnam. Faced with China’s challenge to its claims to the Paracel Islands, Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines, reportedly armed with sub-launched land-attack Klub missiles that could threaten Chinese coastal targets. But Vietnam didn’t fire a shot when China towed a US$1b oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam last year. On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnamese scholars told me that Vietnamese military officers urged sterner action, such as firing on Chinese ships, but senior leaders vetoed them, instead deciding to sit back and let China incur ‘reputational damage’.

Not many people in Asia would agree with what China is doing in the South China Sea. But as it stands, China’s strategy—salami slicing, using offsets to soften risky behavior and accelerating its reclamation activities in the absence of significant opposition—can be summed up in two words: simply brilliant.

William Choong is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Death From Above

Kill Chain

Andrew Cockburn. Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins. Henry Holt Publishers. 307pp. $28.00.

It’s not often that a book review coincides with current events. Books, particularly nonfiction, are usually written and published months, if not years after an event has occurred. That’s because good nonfiction is written in retrospect: writers have spent some time absorbing their subject, researching and analyzing the facts; authors are hesitant to be rash in judgment or thought.

However, there are exceptions. Some pieces of nonfiction, particularly journalists’ works, are appropriate now — not later. Andrew Cockburn’s new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, is one of them.  Cockburn’s book is timely.  In just the past few weeks there has been a flood of reporting from media outlets stating that a drone strike killed an American and an Italian hostage when targeting a group of Al-Qaeda members operating near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Suddenly, questions about drone strikes, the debate about targeted killing, and the transparency of the drone program are on the front page of print and online news media worldwide.

Yes, timely indeed.

Although Cockburn’s book cover is plastered with silhouettes of unmanned aerial vehicles — with what appears to be the X-47B, Predator, Global Hawk, and Fire Scout, among others — he is making a larger argument.  Cockburn it seems, is arguing that all technology is suspect.  It’s not simply unmanned aerial vehicles, but it’s the idea that human beings are continuously so bold as to come up with technological solutions that will win our wars.   History, however, tells us a much different story.

Cockburn, then, starts his book with an interesting tale.

In 1966 the Vietnam War was not going well.  Secretary McNamara, a man who was fond of scientific solutions to difficult problems, turned his attention to “The Jasons.”  The Jasons, Cockburn says, were a small group of scientists and scholars, many of whom would go on to become Nobel Prize winners. These were also some of the same men — Carl Kaysen, Richard Garwin, George Kistiakowski — that were part of the Manhattan Project some twenty years earlier.

The Jasons tried to do what Rolling Thunder could not — they tried to figure out a way to defeat North Vietnam’s ability to use the Ho Chi Minh trail — to cut off their supply routes.  They ended up deploying small sensors along the trail that could, presumably, pick up the noise, vibration, and in some cases, the ammonia of someone urinating, all in an attempt to locate men and machines moving goods to the South.  Then, if they could hear them and find them, U.S. commanders could task air strikes against the communists on the trail.  It didn’t take long, Cockburn says, for the North Vietnamese to find a work-around.  How long?  It took one week.  Cockburn notes that all the North Vietnamese had to do was to use cows and trucks, often running over an area of the trail multiple times to create a diversion while the real logistical effort was moved elsewhere.  So simple and so effective — and relatively inexpensive.  However, Cockburn says the cost of the electronic barrier for the U.S. was around six billion dollars.

This formula is repeated throughout the rest of the book.  That is 1) There is a military problem 2) Someone always tries to find a technological solution, and then 3) Spends a lot of money only to find out the U.S. has made the problem worse.

Now fast forward almost sixty-years to the age of drones, and Cockburn introduces us to Rex Rivolo, an analyst at the Institute of Defense Analysis.  It’s 2007 and improvised explosive devices are a major problem; they are killing and maiming hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.  Asked to analyze the networks behind the IEDs, Rivolo, Cockburn says, discovers that targeted killings of these networks  lead to more attacks, not fewer.  This is because someone more aggressive fills the place of the leader who was recently killed.  Rivolo would return to D.C., even getting the ear of the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, telling him that attacking high- value targets was not the right strategy — the IED networks and individuals setting them off were more autonomous then was initially thought.  Going after the senior guy, Rivolo noted, was not the answer.  But, as Cockburn says, nothing changed. Now people simply refer to the continous cycle of targeting and killing  high-value targets as “mowing the grass.”

The idea of killing  senior leaders or HVTs is not new, it’s been around for a long time (think Caesar).  Cockburn, then, brings up one of the more interesting “what if’s” that military officers — or any student of military history — likes to debate.  That is, what if someone had killed Hitler before the end of the war?  Would the war have ended?  Or would he have become a martyr and someone worse or someone better have taken his place?  Cockburn tells us about British Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thornley, who argued during WWII that, no, the Fuhrer should not be killed.  Thornley noted, that if Hitler was killed, his death would likely make him a martyr for national socialism.  And that Hitler was often a man that “override completely the soundest military appreciation and thereby helped the Allied cause tremendously.”  Therefore, the thinking went, we should let Hitler live and dig his own grave.

However, the problem with this debate is that context matters.  Was it Germany in 1933? 1938? Or 1944? It matters because while Cockburn does not differentiate between the killing of a leader of a state and the leader of a terrorist network, they are indeed different systems that have different levers of power and legitimacy.

He is on firmer ground when he rightly notes how difficult it is for anyone to predict systemic effects when targeting a network.  He reiterates these difficulties throughout the book.  The most historical compelling case is WWII and the strategic bombing campaign.  All one has to do is pick up the WWII U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey and read the fine work done by John K. Galbraith, Paul Nitze, and others.  Disrupting or destroying networks from the air — in this case, Germany’s economy — was incredibly difficult.  In many cases, assumptions of German capabilities or weaknesses were far from correct.  And as Cockburn notes, the term “effects based operations,” namely, operations that are military and nonmilitary that can disrupt complex systems while minimizing risk, was a term that was outlawed in 2008 by General Mattis while the head of Joint Forces Command.

Ultimately, the debate over drones — who should control them, what should they be used for, should the U.S. target particular individuals — will continue.  It’s an important topic.  There are, however, a few shortcomings in this book.  One of the biggest questions that goes unanswered is this: If the U.S. should not strike identified enemies or high-value targets…then what?  Do nothing? Allow a Hitler to simply remain in power?  Is this not a form of moral ignorance?

The questions military planners and policy makers should ask is this:  Do we understand the character of this war?  And are these the right tools we should use to win this war?  We should not blame a drone — or any other type of tech for that matter — for bad strategies, poor operational planning, and gooned up tactics.

Drones are the future.  But we should read Cockburn’s book as a cautionary tale.  We should disabuse ourselves of the illusion that future technologies will be our savior.  And finally, we should not let those illusions crowd out the very difficult task  of understanding our adversaries and the enduring nature of war.

Andrew Cockburn’s book is worth reading.  But have your pencil ready — you’ll want to  argue with him in the margins.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer and recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.  LCDR Nelson is also CIMSEC’s book review editor and is looking for readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC.  You can contact him at  The views above are the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the US Navy or the US Department of Defense.

China’s Maritime Silk Road Gamble

This is republished from the Johns Hopkins SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

Ever since Xi Jinping announced the creation of a Maritime Silk Road in an October 2013 speech to the Indonesian parliament, China’s vision for “one road” running through Southeast and South Asia has driven a significant portion of Chinese foreign policy in its periphery. This has led to both the controversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (announced in the same speech) and complementary investment funds such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank, as well as high-level diplomatic visits by Chinese leaders to countries in the region. In addition, China sees its “Silk Road Economic Belt” among its Central Asian neighbors as indivisible from the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as seen by China’s slogan 一带一路 (“one belt, one road”) and its public diplomacy effort to promote both policies together. All of this indicates that, like many Chinese foreign policy initiatives, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is multi-pronged: it is intended to serve diplomatic, economic, and strategic purposes.

First and foremost, the Maritime Silk Road is designed to pacify neighboring countries threatened by China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Curiously, China has attempted to both aggravate tensions among its Southeast Asian neighbors and soothe them at the same time, contrary to its normal pattern of swinging back and forth between aggressive brinksmanship and diplomatic rapprochement (such as in China’s relationship with Taiwan or its cutting off and then reestablishing of military to military ties with the United States). Despite the idealistic claims of ‘peaceful economic development absent political strings’ made by Chinese leaders and state media about the Maritime Silk Road, China has continued unabated to strengthen its unilateral claim to vast maritime territory in the South China Sea, turning reefs and other undersea maritime features into full-fledged islands, complete with airstrips that could be used by the People’s Liberation Army.

Conversely, the Maritime Silk Road is also designed to cement relationships with countries that are tacitly friendly to China such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. This will be accomplished primarily through economic incentives like infrastructure development and trade deals. In this sense, the Maritime Silk Road not only stands side by side with the Silk Road Economic Belt, but also as part of a historical continuum that includes China’s past investment in maritime-related infrastructure, which has been referred to by some as a “String of Pearls” policy. If one wants to know what kind of infrastructure projects China will fund in the future, look to what it has done in the past: oil and natural gas links to Myanmar’s port in Sittwe, ports in Sri Lanka such as the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects, and the Pakistani port in Gwadar. Indeed, China and Malaysia have already announced a joint port project in Malacca. Meanwhile, China, which is already the largest trading partner for most countries in Southeast and South Asia, is also signing new free trade agreements with countries such as Sri Lanka.

Chinese infrastructure investment, intended primarily to strengthen China’s energy security and increase trade between China and its neighbors, will now get a huge boost with the creation of both the AIIB and more specialized investment vehicles such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank and the Silk Road Fund. While the AIIB has had the flashiest rollout with China contributing $50 billion USD to a planned $100 billion USD in capital, the other two funds are no slouches: the Silk Road Fund has plans for $40 billion USD in capital, while the Maritime Silk Road Bank hopes to attract $100 billion RMB in investment.

Finally, unmentioned in authoritative Chinese sources is that the Maritime Silk Road, and especially Chinese infrastructure investment, is implicitly intended to facilitate more frequent People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployments in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The PLAN needs reliable logistics chains across Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast and South Asia; ships cannot go far without a reliable supply of fuel, food, and armaments. But for the foreseeable future, China is at a serious disadvantage in this regard: the US Navy and allied navies have such a preponderance of force and ability to project power throughout the region that the PLAN is ill-equipped to compete. Given the PLANs current capabilities, China’s logistics capacity would only be dependable during peacetime; they would not survive in a contested environment, particularly if the US decided to close off key chokepoints like the Malacca and Sunda Straits. Therefore, the first step to strengthen the PLAN’s capabilities is to build reliable logistical infrastructure in key friendly states, such as the aforementioned projects in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. These logistical links would still be quite vulnerable in a conflict scenario, given the tenuous relationship China would have with even putatively friendly countries if China went to war. Therefore, the primary benefit for the PLAN is to demonstrate presence in peacetime, and to show that it can operate far from its own shores.

The Maritime Silk Road, along with the attendant Silk Road Economic Belt, is truly a multi-headed dragon, so large that it is difficult to disaggregate its many parts. The most difficult challenge for China, however, will not be building infrastructure and signing trade deals—these are no doubt massive undertakings, but they are fundamentally instrumental tasks that will not receive much opposition from countries in the region. The more difficult objective for China is translating investment and trade into building a coalition of states in the region that align their values and foreign policy goals with those of China, and indeed identify with China at the expense of competitors like the US. China will likely find this kind of bandwagoning hard to pull off—when it comes down to it, the Maritime Silk Road may wash away like sand.

William Yale is the Director of Operations at CIMSEC, an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project, and a Research Associate at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

Raid Breaker: Robert Work’s Soft Kill on Hard Costs

Winston Churchill noted that, “it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war” – so too once the war-war has started, “it is better to buzz-buzz, then to bang-bang.” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work’s desire for new electronic-warfare (EW) solutions AKA Raid Breaker, aimed at large missile salvos in particular, is necessary not only for the arena of physical war, but the internal war of budgets and force planning that enable such critical fights.

For the following argument I assume the effectiveness of soft-kill (EW) over hard-kill options. I also assume that ultimately shooting down a guided missile is more expensive than confusing it; as Secretary Work states,for relatively small investments, you get an extremely high potential payoff.

However, beyond the immediate cost/effectiveness argument, we are forced to spend more in other areas due to the increasing amount of space/weight/weapon systems we dedicate to missile defense on our surface ships. That dedication to defense pushes out offensive capabilities, which we must then buy in other areas. Some might argue that the “need” for the F-35 and its stealth capabilities were, in part, driven by destroyers whose long-range weapons weapons were almost wholly turned over to defense – requiring a carrier for offensive punch. That technological bias towards the defensive has become so extreme that it has required VADM Rowden’s new “Distributed Lethality” effort – a course change back into a realm that should be a natural instinct for the surface force: distributed operations and killing enemy ships.

Of course, the pricetag and weight of kinetic systems has also prevented the fleet from finding more cost-effective ways to increase the ship count – requiring DDG’s or, in the case of the original LCS plan, expanding smaller ships to take on additional responsibilities. With significant investments in defensive systems not requiring a vast VLS magazine, we could build smaller ships with bigger relative punches at a lesser cost. We could more aggressively pursue the Zumwaltian dream of the High-Low Mix: more ships for more effect for less money – every CNO and SECNAV’s dream.

Raid Breaker is a case of finding, and exploiting, competitive advantage. We have been using our best offensive capabilities – the kinetic weapons – for defense. We have let the best defensive options languish, and in so doing pushed expensive requirements into other areas where we must find our offensive edge. A firm dedication to electronic warfare for “soft-kill” options gives us our ships, and our procurement flexibility, back.

In the end, the excitement over Raid Breaker should not primarily involve its awesome war fighting impact if successful – but all the other ideas it will all the Navy to pursue. What makes Raid Breaker so beautiful is that the raid it breaks, in the long-term, is the one on our bottom line.

Matthew Hipple is a Naval Officer and Director of Online Content at CIMSEC. He also produces our Sea Control podcast, hosting the US edition.